Situated Knowledges

Haraway, Donna J. (1999). “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” in Mario Biagioli ed. The Science Studies Reader, London and New York: Routledge.

Haraway argues that social constructionism must evade the path of cynicism to highlight the politics and subjectivity of scientific work of  chauvinistic disciplines.  She is evidently struggling with the benefits of radical social constructionism and its assault on objectivity, in science especially, and critical feminist traditions rooted in Marxism with an empirical grounding. To be sure she appreciates the radical constuctionism work:

science–the real game in town, the one we must play–is rhetoric, the persuasion of the relevant social actors that one’s manufactured knowledge is a route to a desired form of very objective power. Such persuasions must take account of the structure of facts and artifacts, as well as of language-mediated actors in the knowledge game. Here, artifacts and facts are part of the powerful art of rhetoric. Practice is persuasion, and the focus is very much on practice.  All knowledge is a condensed node in an agonistic power field. The strong programme in the sociology of knowledge joins wit the lovely and nasty tools of semiology and deconstruction to insist on the rhetorical nature of truth, including scientific truth. History is a story of Western culture buffs tell each other; science is a contestable text and a power field; the content is the form. Period. 

As a method of straddling both fields, Haraway suggests that ‘feminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges.‘  By focusing on vision, she begins to construct a meaningful interplay between the particularity and embodiment of all vision, and the trials of vision as a route to disembodiment (postmodern thought). Thus vision can be the source of a doctrine and embodiment of feminist objectivity: how visual systems work, technically, socially, and psychically.  She states clearly her goals for reconciling the two ends of the spectrum: “this chapter is an argument for situated and embodied knowledges and against various forms of unlocatable, and so irresponsible, knowledge claims.” She advocates further: “I want to argue for a doctrine and practice of objectivity that privileges contestation, deconstruction, passionate construction, webbed connections, and hope for transformation of systems of knowledge  and ways of seeing. But not just any partial perspective will do; we must be hostile to easy relativisms and holisms built out of summing and subsuming parts.”

Vision is an inherent trait with implied objectivity, but with very real disenfranchisements we must  take into account. Identity is a poor resource for identifying this difference. Being is problematic and contingent; views from the positions of the subjugated, for critical theoretical endeavors, requires moving to a different vantage point, a translation, with attached accountability. To over come this problematic position of being, Haraway suggests splitting as an alternative: “Splitting in this context should be about heterogeneous multiplicities that are simultaneously necessary and incapable of being squashed into isomorphic slots or cumulative lists. This geometry pertains within and among subjects. The topography of subjectivity is multidimensional; so, therefore, is vision. The knowing self is partial in all its guises, never finished  whole, simply there and original; it is always constructed and stitched together imperfectly, and therefore able to joining with another, to see together without claiming to be another. Here is the promise of objectivity: a scientific knower seeks the subject position not of identity, but of the privileged (subjugated) positions structured by gender, race, nation, and class. … Positioning is, therefore, the key practice grounding knowledge organized around the imagery of vision…It follows that politics and ethics ground struggles for the contests over what may count as rational knowledge. ”

Positioning, then is the key to claiming rationality.  Knowledges must be situated, not meta-theoretical, an based on the particular. Rational knowledge should not pretend to disengagement, to avoid responsibility and accountability, free from interpretation and representation: “Rational knowledge is a process of ongoing critical interpretation among “fields of interpreters and decoders. Rational knowledge is power-sensitive conversation…” But we are still left with the object of knowledge production, even if it is rational and situated knowledge which creates it. ” Situated knowledges require that the object of knowledge be pictured as an actor and agent, not a screen or a ground or a resource, never finally as slave to master that closes off the dialectic in his unique agency and authorship of ‘objective’ knowledge. ”

So we have come full circle in her argument. That there is value in science as a tool for creation of knowledge, as a way of understanding our world, but it must be “visioned” from the particular, not the universal. Claims to authority or knowledge must be backed with responsibility and accountability, with acknowledgement of position and positioning.  Haraway thus enmeshes critical feminist empiricism with the radical contructivism by making sure no claims to relativism or holism are possible.  She further explains that situated knowledges, the source of rational knowledge claims, must treat the environment and objects in a dialectical relationship, open to ambivalence.  This is central.


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